By Jim Miller
After my last column on the perils of Carl Luna’s characterization of progressives supporting David Alvarez as the “Tea Party of the Left” I got a response from Luna when the article was reposted at the OB Rag where he stood by his analogy “that those in the Democratic camp who hold that there are ‘true’ progressives (aka those they agree with) and DINOS are in danger of going down the Tea Party rabbit hole—like the Occupy Wall Street people run wild. (Except that Tea Party has 90 seats in Congress—OWS zero).”
This was prefaced by a reminder that, “the point of elections is to win.”
My response to this was to observe that, “The problem with the Tea Party argument is false equivalency. To equate the Tea Party (a movement based on factually challenged assumptions across the board combined with a good dose of racism funded by the Koch brothers) with progressives worried about the growing influence of the rich and corporations inside the Democratic Party is sloppy thinking at best. It implies a kind of moral equivalency, which is frankly offensive.
Arguing that raving about non-existent death panels and Obama’s citizenship and shutting down the government until ‘I get my way’ human costs be damned is the same thing as pointing to the actual history of the contemporary Democratic Party with regard to corporate funding and agenda does a disservice to an intelligent discourse on the subject of what a progressive Democratic Party should look like.
As I noted in my piece, this comparison is a kind of dismissive back of the hand that speaks of the perceived ‘extremes’ of both parties as somehow engaged in the same level of heedless radicalism, political nihilism, and illogical thought. That’s just not what’s happening in the national, state, or local level in any way and to claim that it is is bad analysis that replaces horse race coverage for history . . . Talking about winning without principle sacrifices everything.”
Thus ended our provincial little squabble.
The Real Tea Party: Corporate Democrats’ Best Friends?
Interestingly, since this exchange, Salon’s Josh Eidelson did a great interview with Doug Henwood from the Left Business Observer where Henwood shared his thoughts about the real Tea Party who shut down the Federal Government and how our current moment exposes a kind of “rot at the top end of our society”:
I’ve been really impressed by the erosion of what I thought were the lines of class authority among the American elite. Normally you’d think that [Goldman Sachs CEO] Lloyd Blankfein et al. could go and sit these Republican backbenchers down and remind them of their class duty. But that doesn’t seem to be happening this time . . . I do think that we have this broad kind of rot at the top end of our society: It’s devolved from a real ruling class, with some distance from day-to-day moneymaking, into something more just like a pure plutocracy, interested in maximizing its cash in as short a time as possible, and really not capable of thinking about policy in a serious sense. The Financial Times has been writing about how groups like the Chamber of Commerce, who normally would put pressure on the difficult Republicans, don’t seem to be willing or able to do that — and one of the reasons is that they’re so enamored of the tax-cutting side of the Republican Party that they don’t really want to stop things like the government shutdown, or they don’t have the capacity to stop things. It does seem like there’s a breakdown at the elite level of society.
But also, Michael Lind had an interesting piece about how the roots of the Tea Party are in a Confederate, almost kind of a neo-Confederate structure of people who want to preserve their class privileges — very much articulated through race — and they are a very, very sizable portion of the Republican Party. And what they see — and this is also confirmed by the focus groups that David Greenberg et al. did — the core of this is a group of people that feel like the country is being taken away from them by a new minority-majority country. And all of their familiar touchstones are being smashed. They feel like they’re fighting a heroic kind of lost cause, and they’re willing to do a lot of damage to try to get their way.
Henwood then goes on to note that the Tea Partyers are, at base, a kind of “enraged provincial petit bourgeois that feel that they are seeing society change in ways that they don’t like.” And the racial, regional, religious, and generational hostility of this group is something “the Koch brothers” who “use these folks very effectively” have taken advantage of in a myriad of ways.
But, Henwood explains, now, “To some degree the Big Business interests are paying a price for having relied on these characters in the first place.”
Ironically, the very Tea Partyers that the power elite has used to push their agenda are now threatening the stability of the American economy and hence hurting their interests: “The last thing that Big Business wants to see is something that threatens the status of Treasury bonds. They don’t want to threaten the status of the dollar as reserve currency. They don’t want to rock the image of the United States as the most stable capitalist power in the world. Even though the financial crisis essentially originated here, money still flowed to the United States then because it seemed safer than everywhere else. The big boys don’t want to endanger that status.”
Thus what we are dealing with, Henwood tells us, is the revenge of the Frankenstein monster created by the power elite that they can no longer control: “The American elite has lost control, or is losing control, of some of the core mechanisms of its power. And I think the rest of the world must watch with jaw hanging down. And I think a lot of the Tea Party types either don’t care about the risk of default, or don’t believe that anything serious can emerge from a serious default.”
But where does big business go if it can now longer dictate terms to the Republicans? To Democrats, of course. Henwood again:
If Boehner’s not able to rally the troops finally, or has a very difficult time doing it and has a lot of turmoil around it, I think business will look to the Democrats as more reliable partners, sure.
Look at what Obama would like to do: Obama would like to keep the government funded and keep us paying interest on our Treasury debt. But he would also like the old Bowles-Simpson “Grand Bargain” of cuts to Social Security and Medicare. He came into office talking about that, and he hasn’t really lost his drive to do it. So he’s got what is essentially an orthodox austerity agenda, which would please most of the mainstream parts of Wall Street and the Fortune 500 . . . the Democrats are now pretty reliable on that agenda — not tax cuts, but deregulation and business-friendly policies and austerity and budget-cutting and all that sort of stuff that business interests like. It may just make the Democrats look more and more like a saner, more reliable partner. And people who are not allied with Big Business, the traditional Democratic electoral base, will have nowhere else to go.
Thus the great irony of the implosion of the Republican Party via the Tea Party shutdown might be that it results not in a swing of the pendulum toward a more progressive American politics but in a further corporatization of the Democratic Party. This would be a great turn of events for the political fortunes of the Democratic Party if all one cares about is electoral victory and not what the party will stand for once it wins. If, on the other hand, you hold out any hope that the Democrats should actually stand for ordinary Americans rather than the interests of the power elite, this should be a very concerning turn of events.
Or Is San Diego in a New York State of Mind?
An alternative to this dead end future for progressives might be what is happening in New York City where progressive mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio is cruising toward a landslide victory.
In a noteworthy piece in The American Prospect, “Two-Faced: the Democratic Party’s Divergent Future,” Harold Meyerson frames the current struggle inside the Democratic Party as one between socially liberal but corporate friendly figures like Cory Booker of New Jersey versus more progressive economic populists like Bill de Blasio: “Not to put too fine a point on it, Booker is a corporate Democrat and de Blasio an anti-corporate Democrat. Booker sees the corporate and financial sectors as allies in helping America’s poor, while de Blasio sees the corporate and financial sectors as the groups that have used their power to rig the economy in their favor and at everyone else’s expense.”
And this is the heart of the battle for the future of the Democratic Party. As Meyerson notes:
Democrats no longer suffer from significant internal differences on social issues or foreign policy. When it comes to promoting gay rights, reproductive freedom and immigrant legalization, the party is effectively unified. On foreign and military policy, there is widespread relief that America’s overseas interventions are winding down and a widespread wish that they not be wound up. It’s only on certain economic issues that the Democrats are divided. Just some issues: Almost all party leaders support making taxes more progressive, raising the minimum wage, investing more in infrastructure, extending health coverage through Obamacare (and beyond Obamacare where possible), and making education more affordable. But at the state and, even more, the municipal level, there are serious differences over the role of unions, the future of public education, and the corporate-backed privatization of services. De Blasio and Booker diverge on issues of substance here, and have come to symbolize even more disparate paths. As much as they differ on the words that will shape the party’s future, they differ even more on the music . . .
For Booker and de Blasio merely personify in the extreme the two main tendencies in today’s Democratic Party. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and, at times, former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, have also exemplified a breed of Democratic officials, chiefly mayors, who sought and cultivated corporate allies in their efforts to privatize services and oppose public-sector unions. Cuomo was one of a smaller group of Democratic executives who have been cool to the idea of raising taxes on the rich. On the other side of the Democratic divide, Senators Elizabeth Warren, Sherrod Brown, and Jeff Merkley are just some of the party leaders who have demanded far stricter regulations on finance and legislation to strengthen the rights and interests of workers. These Democrats tap into the increasingly strong economic egalitarianism of the party’s activist base—an egalitarianism that has provided the foundation for de Blasio’s remarkable surge.
Meyerson goes on, accurately I think, to put Jerry Brown in the middle of these two camps as he straddles the fence, playing the populist on minimum wage while urging austerity rather than more revenue for higher education. The choice that the party will have to make in the future is whether to follow the mother’s milk of corporate cash or to endorse “policies that would more forcefully take on America’s plutocratic order. More de Blasio, less Booker. Therein lies the Democratic future—if that future is to last.” Amen.
Here in San Diego’s mayoral contest, the real battle is over which Democrat will take on Republican Kevin Faulconer: the corporate Democrat par excellence, Nathan Fletcher, or David Alvarez, a local manifestation of precisely the kind of bold new populist direction that de Blasio embodies in New York.
It’s a choice between a guy who gets outraged letters of defense from his corporate master at Qualcomm when he gets hit by a nasty mailer from the Lincoln Club or the candidate who neither the Lincoln Club nor Fletcher’s corporate sponsors want as mayor. It’s about wanting a mayor who doesn’t have to apologize for once signing Grover Norquist’s pledge to “starve the beast” and a whole host of other votes that harmed ordinary people in the name of the right wing orthodoxy that served his personal interests at the time.
As I noted in my response to Carl Luna, “supporting David Alvarez is not some kind extremist position, nor is outlining Nathan Fletcher’s HORRIBLE record on the issues. Alvarez is winning the endorsements of labor, the Democrats, SD Democrats for Equality, and almost every other progressive group in San Diego because he stands for core progressive values and it is completely unclear whether Nathan Fletcher has any core values at all . . . Fact: on labor issues, Faulconer has a 31% record on the city council; Fletcher’s record in the Assembly was 18%. I’m not someone who lets a lot of hot air cloud my view of such inconvenient facts. So let’s hope Alvarez wins and we have a real choice in the run-off. Otherwise we’re left with Sanders versus Sanders lite.”
And that could very well happen—but a politics worth engaging in isn’t just about betting on favorites. Sometimes you have to stand on principle even if it means going with the underdog. And once in a while, if you work hard, you can pull off the upset. David Alvarez doesn’t represent the Tea Party of the left; he represents the future that the real Tea Party fears—a diverse, egalitarian city and country where there is a place for everyone.
Like de Blasio in New York, Alvarez offers a new way forward. Here’s hoping San Diego is in a New York state of mind.